Monday, May 9, 2011

Towards Molecular Spirituality

Towards Molecular Spirituality

By Dr Nandkumar Kamat

Contrary to media hype, Craig Venter did not create life in the laboratory (See all his work by visiting his institutional website After 15 years of painstaking and expensive research, he demonstrated a new gene splicing technique useful in synthetic genomics – a sub discipline of synthetic biology.
The institute claims that “the ability to routinely write the software of life will usher in a new era in science, and with it, new products and applications such as advanced biofuels, clean water technology, and new vaccines and medicines. The field is already having an impact in some of these areas and will continue to do so as long as this powerful new area of science is used wisely.”
Take a bacterial cell, remove the original genetic material and replace it with artificially tailored, synthetic one. There is no way the cell recognises it as artificial. Using the artificial genetic material the cell would replicate. The new cells would have the copies of artificial genetic material. The new cells themselves have in their constitution components which have been produced by the artificial material. What happens after many generations? You have a synthetic species that is the outcome of laboratory evolution. Four billion years of work of nature is compressed in four days. So what lies at the roots of all this - just molecules and some information.
Have a correct combination, get the correct functional sequence and you can reprogram the cells you want. How do we get the correct combination, the correct sequence? Shop for it in Nature’s biodiversity supermarket? You have three million species to choose from. But right now we know the full sequence of only 180 species. The revolutionary breakthrough in synthetic biology has the potential to turn everything on its head. It has dematerialised life and has brought it to the level of a complex computer program. Instead of bits and bytes here we use chemicals.
Ultimately life is getting reduced to an operating system. We may have the best computer hardware but it would not work without an operating system. Once you install the operating system, the computer comes to life and obeys all your logical commands. Viruses which infect computers have amazing functional similarity with biological viruses. This is possible because both have information. What came first - the information or the molecules? Molecules need information to be assembled from constituent atoms. There is a ready supply of atoms in the universe. For organic life, however, atoms from only 32 elements matter. There are infinite combinations of these atoms. But it took cosmos 10 billion years to sort out the correct assembly sequence.
The basic life building blocks were present on earth four and a half billion years ago. Many combinations were possible. But it took the earth a billion years to sort out the correct sequence – the first functional program to make a cell. That was the beginning of life. Scientists believe that this could happen anywhere else in the vast universe given similar conditions.
The quest for origin of life and urge to design artificial life is leading the world towards the age of molecular spirituality. It means that we look deeper at the origin, nature, structure and function of all bio molecules with the same sense of awe, humility, wonder and appreciation we show when we look at nature. To illustrate, when I look at a gray strand of my hair, I begin to think about loss of the protective black hair pigment - melanin. The same material has been found even in interstellar dust clouds. But melanin in my hair is a result of a program that made it reach there. If I spend a little more time looking at its intricate structure I believe that it has something special, something that provided me with protection from strong radiation, pollutants and microbial attacks. My sense of security and wellbeing then gets spiritually connected to that single molecule. Every molecule that makes us is beautiful and useful. Look at the haemoglobin that carries the oxygen we breathe to all our cells. It binds an atom of pure iron. The Christians would discover a cross and the Hindus a swastika in its structure - four Nitrogen atoms binding the central Iron. Why only that type of molecular configuration? We breathe easily if our haemoglobin is normal. Our breath is our life. But who appreciates the haemoglobin molecule and connects to its beautiful structure spiritually? There are so many molecules which can bind and transport oxygen. But we got only haemoglobin. Look closely at its four beautiful folded polypeptide chains. Why did this happen? Why not one, two, eight or ten chains?
Empirical scientific search would also lead us to spiritual searches. Molecular biologists seldom appreciate the aesthetics of molecules with which they work. But they would be prompt to appreciate the sunset from their laboratory window. Their yardstick of aesthetic appreciation is different for different things. Why don’t they look aesthetically at the beautiful architecture of a DNA molecule or the array of proteins or the three dimensional structure of an active site of enzymes or just a plain antibody? Why do scientists fail to connect with the objects of their research at a deeper level?
If spirituality is considered subjective and pseudoscientific then it would be denial of human spirit. Humans are not just cellular automatons. It is our spirit which distinguishes us from pigs and donkeys. No insult intended to these animals. But the difference is that pigs and donkeys have not built civilizations. There is a degree of difference between the biological and non biological world. There is a critical difference between conscious and not so conscious life forms. What is human spirit? The Vedics of India called it ‘atman’. It is the human spirit that seeks for answers about the nature of physical reality.
The Large Hadron Collider intends to discover the Higgs’s boson, touted as “God particle”. It would explain why we are not invisible life forms. The synthetic biologists have entered a new game of playing with molecules. If they completely lose their spiritual sense on the way, they and their work would not be different from programmed robots.

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